Small Business Philosophy for Mechanical Engineering

Sep 9, 2011

by Eric Butterman ASME.org

There are many opportunities for small businesses in mechanical engineering, but it comes down to financial and sales understanding as much as ability in the field.

According to Mike Brown, vice president of marketing and sales for ZAPS Technologies, you better get number-crunching. “I’ve seen many engineers who were brilliant but didn’t realize it comes down to profitability,” he says. “You should be able to forecast how much money you’ll need and how much you think your product will make. It’s terrific if it serves a greater purpose, but [financial] backers are trying to make a living.”

Christopher Neils, a bioengineering lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle, sees government agencies as a key to his area’s small business opportunities. “I see the field divided between those technologies/applications that require FDA approval and those that don't,” he notes. “I think that small business and inventors will pursue more of the latter as biotech components become more readily available at moderate cost. The results would be things like biosensors for geoengineering and cool living materials like the bacteria that are designed to fill cracks in concrete.”

Neils believes that FDA-approval projects like gene therapies will get more of the press. “There is some room for small companies in therapies that target specific cells or cell components, implantable drug-delivery devices, and inventive mechanical surgical devices. Much of the actual production of these technologies will eventually be by the big companies that buy out the small ones. There will continue to be exciting advances in imaging technology, too, but I expect that the associated equipment will be too pricey for most startup companies.”

Again...Those Other Skills

Though engineers may fill some business skills, they have to be willing to admit when they lack in major and important areas. Answering a request for a proposal can lead to strong work but writing one properly is its own art, along with being time consuming.

Honestly search yourself as to whether you can hit it in a strong way. Meetings for potential sales are also not everyone’s strong suit, so a small business owner can’t be afraid to be trained in that area or bring someone else to sell, Brown says.

Finally, negotiation can be highly stressful and an easy game to lose when you don’t understand the ins and outs. If the topic of money makes you nervous, it may be a situation to defer to someone else with a steady hand.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

I’ve seen many engineers who were brilliant but didn’t realize it comes down to profitability.Mike Brown, ZAPS Technologies